The culture of yes
A ventilator startup finds its life force at Berkeley Engineering
There are millions of startup ideas out there. But a concept’s eventual success depends not just on its value proposition or product-market fit — it must first find a supportive environment in which to grow. Just ask graduate student Abhi Ghavalkar.
Ghavalkar’s idea for a medical device could address ventilator shortages around the world for numerous respiratory conditions (not including COVID-19, since its treatment protocols are different). These include diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the sixth-leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries. Noninvasive ventilators can also support pre-term infants whose lungs have not yet fully developed.
As Ghavalkar tried to build out his startup concept, however, he was faced with one roadblock after another. It wasn’t until he came to Berkeley as a master of design (MDes) student that he found the supportive community and creative environment that would enable him to make his fledgling idea a reality.
Ghavalkar’s product, Prana — the word means “breath” or “life force” in Sanskrit — is an attachment for hospital ventilators that enables up to four patients to share a single continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, a noninvasive device that delivers a constant level of air pressure to a patient’s upper respiratory tract. The new system will cost less than $2,500 per unit serving four patients compared to traditional noninvasive ventilators that cost up to $17,000 per unit per patient.
The birth of an idea
After graduating from Loughborough University in 2019, Ghavalkar was eager to launch his own business in the medical services space. He had received a startup visa from the British government and had spent about seven months developing an online global marketplace for affordable in vitro fertilization options. But when that idea was made impossible by COVID international travel bans, he had to quickly pivot his plans.
Jobless and without unemployment benefits, Ghavalkar searched for a project to keep himself in the U.K. and to stay connected to design and engineering. After participating in a few hackathons, he read a 2006 paper published by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine on clinical research into the potential use of ventilator splitters, but he saw several inherent flaws in the concept. Inspired, he contacted a former classmate, Zach Mudge, to discuss developing a product together.
Once they had their concept, Ghavalkar and Mudge reached out to more than 40 individuals, universities, non-profits, governments and disaster-relief organizations worldwide. Every single one turned them down. “This was in the middle of lockdown, and it was quite disheartening,” Ghavalkar said. “But we refused to take no for an answer.”
With about £50 ($68), Mudge bought some plumbing pipes and valves from a local hardware store, attached four balloons to simulate lungs and connected the setup to his vacuum cleaner to prove that the splitter could regulate the amount of air that each patient received.
The two engineers sent a video of their product to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which issued a list of standards to qualify for an emergency-use authorization during COVID. The next step was to prove that the system could work in a clinical setting with medical grade parts. But without any funding or a support team, the road ahead was steep.
Finding a creative community
In late 2020, Ghavalkar arrived in Berkeley to begin the MDes program. He posted a What’s App message to his incoming cohort, inviting others to join him in applying for an Innovation Catalyst student grant from the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. That’s where he connected with Mercedes Saldana and Peipei “Penny” Lin; when they won a student grant of $2,000 in January 2021, they knew they’d use the funds to create a second prototype.
That same month, Ghavalkar took a challenge lab through the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology (SCET) called Innovating Through Crisis, with the goal of launching a startup with a working prototype by the end of the semester. “I realized, okay, we’re making a medical device, but we have zero bioengineers on the team,” he said. He reached out to a classmate, Athena Lopez, a bioengineering undergrad whose previous work had impressed him. Suddenly, Ghavalkar found himself surrounded by enthusiastic peers, experienced faculty, even grant funding. The path of “nos” he’d been on was suddenly turning into one of “yeses.”
“Berkeley is the ultimate ‘toy store’ for the curious — full of tinkerers and innovators at play,” said Ken Singer, SCET managing director and chief learning officer, as well as the instructor for the Innovating Through Crisis lab. “Our ‘peer-centric’ learning model prepares students to create for themselves an ecosystem of advocates and collaborators that makes anything possible.”
A universal pain point
With the momentum of their grant, the team spoke with respiratory therapists at Stanford Children’s Hospital and UCSF, and interviewed doctors in several countries. From Ghana to Mexico, Saldana said, “everyone outside the U.S. had the same pain point: not enough ventilators.”
Since then, work on Prana has continued to accelerate. The team has expanded to 12, built a second prototype using medical grade parts and electronics, and coded the device to get it operational. When the students ran out of funds before they could construct an enclosure, Ghavalkar created one out of a shoebox to keep the momentum going. UCSF even donated two ventilators to the project for reference. This year, Prana won the Gold Award in the medical device, emergency equipment category at the New York Product Design Awards; was named a finalist in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards; won the Social Impact Prize at the San Francisco Design Week Awards; and was named a Student Notable Project in the health and wellness category in the Core77 Design Awards.
The team also got accepted into the CITRIS Foundry incubator and the Berkeley SkyDeck Accelerator’s Pad-13 program; earlier this year it completed both the Haas School’s UC Student Entrepreneurship Program and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps. In the next two months, the group will incorporate; it then hopes to submit a product for medical device approval within a year and have one batch operational in the market within the next two to three years.
Looking forward, Ghavalkar feels more optimistic than ever about the startup. “This project would have died if I hadn’t come to Berkeley,” he said. “Just knowing that I have access to so many fantastic people and resources — that’s lifted our effort more than anything else. I couldn’t be more grateful to be here.”